Speaking an Alien Language: Communication in Arrival

Louise Banks stands before the heptapod ship that will change her perception of the world.

Communication is messy. Words are imprecise. Meaning is layered, and comes in many shades. Humans are just fleshy pods forever trying to share the images in their minds, shadowy representations of the world that shape how we think, act and live.

Arrival, the achingly thoughtful sci-fi film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, explores this idea better than any movie I have seen in recent memory. It reminds us that, although communicating with others can be painful, fraught, and at times feel like talking in an alien language, we are always better for the attempt.

Spoiler warning: if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, please do so before reading any further. This post is going to seriously spoil it for you.

Words make our world

We perceive the world around us through the words we speak. Or at least, that’s the thesis Arrival puts forth. In its view of the world, language alters not only how we talk about our lives, but how we experience them too.

Even those who study communication for a living cannot escape it — just because you know the theory doesn’t necessarily mean you can put it into practice. Our language is too big to escape through mere rationality. It encloses our brains, homes our thoughts, and ultimately shapes our realities.

The idea that language affects the way we experience the world, known as linguistic relativity, is an ancient one. It’s also commonly known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after the two linguists who were among the first to propose it in the modern era. For decades debate has raged over the extent that language impacts our perception. Sapir and Whorf actually argued for the strongest version of the concept — that the world we inhabit is built upon the language we speak.

Over the years linguists have studied the ways in which language and perception are interrelated, and found intriguing connections. It’s easy to prove some sort of relationship between the two, even if the exact nature of that relationship is up for debate. But the stronger hypothesis, known as linguistic determinism, is much harder to prove: the belief that language actually determines our experiences. This is the belief that Arrival argues for.

Arrival wants us to entertain the possibility that the way we communicate literally structures how we think, how we perceive the world, and how we live our lives. Because all our human languages are rooted in the temporal, they encourage us to see things through the boundaries of time. They shift the wavelengths of our perception through a structured, sequential lens. Things happen and they cause other things to happen, in that order.

But what if a language existed that wasn’t rooted in the temporal? What if it didn’t place events along a consequential timeline? Would we begin to lose sense of time as a force that only flows in one direction, forever and essentially onwards?

Time process

Enter the heptapods, an alien race that lands unexpectedly on earth at the very start of Arrival. As we discover over the course of the film, their whole culture, civilization, and mode of being is structured around what their language tells them: that time is to be experienced all at once, as a whole, rather than something broken into useful but misleading bursts.

Their version of reality is in high contrast to our own, and Arrival draws our attention to differences in modes of communication to explain this divergence. Unlike the leaders of humanity, who squabble shortsightedly among themselves as they try to uncover what the heptapods are on earth to do, the alien visitors themselves seem calm and united in their purpose. They benefit from seeing the future as the past or the present — we humans do not.

As linguist Louise Banks attempts to communicate with the heptapods, she repeatedly bumps up against the limitations of our language. So often words fail us when we need them most; they are unable to articular our innermost thoughts or they ring hollow against our true meaning.

When the heptapods tell the humans that “there is no time”, they are trying to explain that the human construct of time is itself flawed. But of course the message gets scrambled, meaning is duplicated, and the translators take it to mean that negotiations have come to an end.

But could language really reshape our reality, as it does for Louise? The more she learns of the language of the heptapods, the more her world alters. She becomes haunted by visions of the death of a child she has yet to give birth to, the breakdown of a relationship she is yet to embark on. All because she learns to speak in a way whereby sentences are constructed all at once, not as elongated events that unfold along time but as complete reflections of the way the world is. Death becomes a “process” rather than a final state to be thrust into.

It’s an intriguing, high-concept idea that you won’t find many linguists arguing for. But a surprising amount of Arrival is actually based on established fact.

Language and perception

Studies have found that grammatical genders influence how we perceive objects. In German, which classes the word “key” as masculine, speakers recruited for a study described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal and useful. Spanish, on the other hand, classes keys as feminine objects — and these speakers described keys as golden, intricate, little, lovely and tiny. This starkly gendered language is just one small way in which the words we use can impact our thoughts.

There is an Australian Aboriginal language which only uses the points on a compass to describe position and direction. Rather than saying something is “to the left”, a speaker of this language will say it is “to the west” if they are pointing northwards or “to the east” if they are pointing southwards. Thus, speakers learn to become much more spatially aware of themselves in relation to the earth than most Westerners — it’s a vital part of their communication.

Our sense of time, too, is warped by words. In Papua New Guinea a language exists that understands time according to elevation. For most of us, the future is something located ahead on the straight horizontal line of our lives. But in the Yupno language the future is always uphill, no matter which way you are facing. The members of the Yupno tribe view time from high to low, not left to right — or right to left — as so much of the rest of the world does. And it appears to be largely thanks to their unique language.

We know that language can alter our perceptions, even if we do not know the precise way it merges with our culture, our upbringing and our experiences to create a cohesive view of the world. In Arrival, alien words have the power to let us see our lives all at once: the good and the bad, the joy and the heartbreak. Louise chooses to give life to the child, Hannah, she knows will eventually die. She chooses to go on the journey, even knowing its full path.

But, in the most remarkable piece of evidence I found while researching this post, it turns out that speakers of languages like Japanese and Mandarin, where the future tense does not necessarily alter the form of a verb but can be implied simply through time references like ‘tomorrow’, make better long-term decisions than speakers of languages where the future is explicitly denoted by unique tenses, like English and Korean. Those whose language has a weak distinction between present and future are healthier and save more money than those whose language strictly separates the present from the future. They see the future as closer and more concrete, not as something far-off they don’t have to think about yet. So perhaps Louise’s decision, spurred on by her new understanding of time from the heptapod language, was the right one after all.

The gift and the curse

The title Arrival suggests a single point in time, not just referring to the sudden presence of the aliens, but a birth too — a nascent beginning. Over the course of the film we are encouraged to broaden our horizons and see the “arrival”, both of the heptapods and of Hannah, as an event spread across years, rippling through time in all directions. More of an “arrival process”.

For me, Arrival is strongest not when it’s at its most literal — Louise searching her future memories for a conversation she will one day have teetered on the edge of nonsensical – but when it’s used as a metaphorical thought experiment. If you could see everything at the outset, would you approach your life differently? If you saw every moment as part of a whole, rather than a series of steps passing from day to day, would you change the way you make decisions?

Language is part of the necessary shackles we place over our existence. Without boundaries, without a way to make sense of what we experience, the world would be formless, vague, terrifying, like the shifting and directionless environment the heptapods inhabit in their floating ships. The fewer linguistic chains, the more our minds open up — and that is both a gift and a curse, as Louise discovers. We may come to understand truths that are too large, too profound for us to handle. There is a reason why we preoccupy ourselves with small talk for so much of our day-to-day lives.

So much of our lives seem incommunicable, utterly untranslatable into the words we have at our disposal. What we do manage to express seems only a fleeting shadow of what we experience, like a half-remembered dream or a reflection in a twisted mirror.

And yet communication is a miracle, and it’s a blessing we have as much utility as we do. It is the linguist’s job to try and scratch under the surface to better understand the meaning lying underneath our words — these incomplete tools that are all we have to share with each other the private worlds in our own heads.

Arrival is deeply touching, but it also has a positive story to tell. It imagines a world in which we have the power to escape the bubble of our own temporal perceptions. If we could free ourselves just a little from the way words bind us, could get that much closer to the truth, what would our world be like? Would arguments and miscommunication cease to exist? Would we be able to band together for the greater good as the heptapods do? Or would it not matter either way?

In communication we must all make an effort. The struggle to make ourselves heard and understood is an innate part of being human, even if the specific language we speak is not. We each must be prepared to go on the journey, to learn and grow where we can, although we might already know the destination. Arrival tells us that in language, as in life, nothing is set in stone. And everything remains to be discovered.

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